Chávez suffers respiratory infection days after undergoing cancer surgery

Ruling Socialist party wins majority of gubernatorial seats up for grabs on Sunday

A Chávez supporter touches a campaign poster of the president during a PSUV rally Sunday
A Chávez supporter touches a campaign poster of the president during a PSUV rally SundayJ. SILVA (REUTERS)

President Hugo Chávez reportedly suffered a respiratory infection just days after he underwent his fourth surgery for a cancerous tumor, government officials said late Tuesday.

The announcement was made after Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won a majority of the states in regional elections on Sunday, giving the ruling party 20 of the 23 gubernatorial seats that were up for grabs.

Henrique Capriles, who unsuccessfully tried to unseat Chávez from his presidential post in October, was re-elected governor of the country's most populous state, Miranda.

But it is Chávez's health problems that are uppermost in the minds of most Venezuelans. The leftist leader underwent surgery in Havana on December 12, his fourth operation since he was diagnosed with cancer in June 2011. According to government officials, Chávez suffered intensive bleeding during the six-hour procedure. His condition went from serious to stable by Tuesday, Vice President Nicolás Maduro said in a nationwide address.

It is uncertain when the 58-year-old Chávez, who tried to overthrow the democratically elected government of Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992, will return to Venezuela.

It is unclear whether Chávez will be able to take his oath of office in Caracas

Earlier this month he anointed Maduro as his successor. Under the Venezuelan Constitution, if he is unable to serve out the first four years of his six-year mandate, fresh elections must be called to elect a new president. If Chávez cannot take his oath of office, National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello will take over and must call elections.

The intense political situation and the uncertainty have put this country of 30 million people on edge. Daily reports in the newspapers suggest that the PSUV is divided between the leftwing politicians who support Maduro and are closely aligned with Havana, and military officers linked to Cabello.

At the same time, the united opposition, which came together in an unprecedented show of force during the general elections this year, is geared for another showdown if anything should happened to Chávez or if the president was to step down.

Chávez, who has been in power since 1998, won his fourth term on October 7 with 54.4 percent of the vote over Capriles, a center-left politician, who got 44.9 percent of the ballots.

Ernesto Villegas, the government information minister, announced on Tuesday night that Chávez was suffering from a respiratory infection and that the doctors in Havana had ordered the president to take a complete rest and renounce his official duties at this time. It is unclear whether the Venezuelan leader will be able to make it to his inauguration on January 10.

Several Caracas dailies reported on Sunday that Venezuelan lawmakers were prepared to travel to Havana to allow Chávez to be sworn in. If this should occur, it would be the first time since democracy was restored in 1958, with the overthrow of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, that a president has sworn his oath of office on foreign soil.

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